First, the good news: Bad news juices my neural Rich Club networks. Always has, always will – depending upon many variables. Buddha’s Brain author, Rick Hansen, writing in the Psychotherapy Networker last month, details both why this is the case for my brain, and why it might be for yours as well: the brain has built-in sensors for threat detection. My brain/mind/body reacts to bad things faster, more strongly and more often than it does to good things. As Roy Baumeister, a research psychologist known as Dr. Evil at Florida State, puts it, “It’s evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good.” Paying attention to people, places and circumstances which might prematurely terminate my life with extreme prejudice turns out to be very good for my health, and it appears to be hardwired in from birth.
Unless it isn’t. I might have been the rare wild card raised in a safe, loving home who somehow managed to avoid the seemingly inevitable neural decimations that take place in Middle School and High School (according to one of my education heroes, Ken Robinson, 98% of kids who think they’re creative in kindergarten, disintegrate to only 2% by high school graduation. Can anything else be responsible for that shift other than … brain damage?). If I did manage to somehow avoid that damage, I’m in a bind, for I very well may not have been afforded the opportunity to robustly develop my brain’s threat detection sensors. Which would have pretty much made me naïve, dead meat on the street, post-graduation. I would have been easy prey, readily identifiable by any marginally savvy, street smart thug. And believe me, they come in all colors and stripes (many modern-day thugs wear ties and work in financial institutions; some even have walls filled with plaques, diplomas and certificates ironically attesting to their thugness. Former Harvard president, Larry Summers comes most immediately to mind. Sidebar: Thugs rarely comprehend the planetary suffering or the karmic consequences of their collective actions. Here’s a dot that few thugs will connect – the planetary increase in child abuse and neglect resulting from their unskillful acts).
Modern Day Death Traps
Where my brain and its negativity bias most often tends to get me into trouble these days though is when it decides that life is strong and stable enough for me to engage in long-deferred “growth opportunities.” My brain seems to continually want me to grow and learn and change, something that’s not generally at the top of my To-Do List, my Honey-Do List or my Bucket List. How best then, to go about that work?
Battling the Bias
Well, we might start with what Marcial Losada, famous for the “Ratio” named after him, has written. “We are not to become uncritical Pollyannas – but instead to practice ‘realistic optimism.’ That means telling yourself the most hopeful and empowering story possible about any given situation without denying or minimizing the facts.”
From there, we might embrace what Mother Teresa observed: there’s no life requirement for us to do great things. Instead, we each have the possibility to live into to this Zen parable, which I’ll recount here (with a bit of editing for clarity) from Mark Epstein’s new book, The Trauma of Everyday Life – A Guide to Inner Peace:
Years after his beloved guru had died, a student was back in India staying at the home of a friend who was their guru’s most devoted disciple.
“I must show you something,” the disciple said one day. “This is what Dada left for me.” The disciple was excited, of course. Any trace of his guru was nectar to him. The elderly man opened the creaking doors of an ancient wooden wardrobe and took something from the back of the bottom shelf. It was wrapped in an old, dirty cloth.
“Do you see?” he asked.
“No. See what?”
The disciple unwrapped the object, revealing an old, beat-up pot, the kind of ordinary pot one sees in every Indian kitchen. Looking deeply into the visitor’s eyes, the disciple told him, “He left this for me when he went away. Do you see? Do you see?”
“No,” the student replied, “I don’t see.”
His friend looked at him even more intensely, this time with a wild glint in his eyes.
“You don’t have to shine,” he said. “You don’t have to shine.“
So, may we all be free to breathe fully into exactly how we are, where we are, when we are and not have to shine. And be freer still to operate as Mother Teresa advised and let the natural, organic impulse toward growth move us to do small things with great love.